God and Country Music: The Country Music Culture Wars

Country music, since its inception, has been a (if not the) voice of rural, white Americana. With a musical genealogy to be darn proud of, stretching back to Dock Boggs, the great coal mining banjo player, to the legendary Hank Williams, the king of country music, Country has not only been a voice for the working folks but also a voice against the encroaching modern, urban world. And with the mainstream American culture changing at what seems to be a terrifying, rapid pace, Country music is refusing to give ground.

The genre is holding out against urbanization with cultural identity at stake. Country music today is full of anthems to the rural town. In Carrie Allen Tipton’s recent article at PopMatters, she rightly concludes:

Current Nashville country largely props up one-dimensional notions of what, exactly, the genre is; who its fans are; who performs it; where it enjoys the most cultural resonance. A cursory look at top-ten country songs from the past few months includes hits such as Jason Aldean’s “Fly-Over States” (Where is country music popular?), Kip Moore’s “Something ’Bout A Truck” (What is the lifestyle apparatus of a country fan?), Montgomery Gentry’s “Where I Come From” (What are the cultural values of country folks?), and Aldean’s “Tattoos on This Town” (All of the above rolled into one epic musical statement). These songs take aim at a mythological set of social norms linked to the “un-American artifice” of the city, implying or declaring that rural folkways are under assault from the evils of urban existence.

In a world of rapidly changing values, social norms, and standards (at least in urban areas), the silent majority of conservative, rural citizens feel abandoned by the American culture. This sense of abandonment has not only drawn the culture of Country music inward but also toward open mockery of urbanization and liberalization, while still drawing from hip-hop terminology and verse to prove a very anti–hip-hop point. Tipton cites  several popular contemporary Country songs (i.e., Eric Church’s “Homeboy” and Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem”) that simultaneously point the critical finger at urban music and culture yet use their vocabulary and style of song:

The songs stand proudly in a long lineage of country music’s efforts to define itself as a pure, rural folk product that resists the encroaching sonic and social landscapes of soulless urban modernity. But the songs at once escalate and compromise these efforts by constructing themselves on the musical and linguistic tropes of the very urbanity they seek to reject.

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This seems to parallel the American Evangelical psyche over the past 40 years or so. With a paranoia that the new, urbanized, liberalized world is going to overrun the fundamentals of Christianity, the evangelical culture has likewise turned insular. Some evangelical churches and organizations can serve almost the same function as songs like “Dirt Road Anthem” in giving refugees a place to hide out from the changing world. And while the intentions are usually good, for people wanting to preserve their way of life, it can be very easy to miss the true point of the church (and in a smaller way, Country music): To be a city on a hill that the rest of the world can turn to as a beacon of hope. While the culture may be changing (even degrading) around us, it is not helpful for the church or Country music to go to war, but to simply do what it does and offer substance to a substance-lacking culture.

About Nick Rynerson

Nick Rynerson lives in Normal, Illinois (no, seriously). In his free time, He writes, attempts to play mandolin, reads and hangs out with his groovy wife. Nick has a soft spot for any song with a banjo and thinks Bruce Campbell is the best actor on earth. However, he is a terrible golfer and has particular distaste internet controversy . Nick is passionate about the Church, (lower case) orthodoxy and whatever he's been reading about recently.

Follow Nick on Twitter: @Nick_Rynerson
or at his website: nickrynerson.com

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  • vorjack

    Interesting. I grew up in the foothills of Virginia, and the roots music of choice was bluegrass, blues and gospel. Country music was looked down upon as bastardization, a result of the Nashville attempt to create a consumer friendly version of real mountain music. It was performed by swaggering “hat hunks” with no soul and less musical talent than a squashed possum.

    Country music was considered artificial, and the people who listened to it were ex-burban wannabes who thought that a 4×4 and a longneck were cultural symbols. Rock was actually viewed more favorably, because the old timers remembered Elvis’ gospel albums.

    I guess each wave of migration looks down on the next.

  • http://www.breakpoint.org Gina

    Fascinating analysis!

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    Nick, you are always a pleasure to read and teach me so much about country music! Since I am not that familiar with country music what type of hip-hop terminology do country songs use? I remember a song from a few years ago, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”, a countrified version of a hip-hop booty song and the Tim McGraw/Nelly collaboration but I am really curious what hip-hop terms are commonly used in today’s country music.

  • Rick

    Rural America claims to have different values, but then teen pregnancy rates in the Bible Belt tell us that Rural America is embracing the sexual revolution with a vengeance. Claiming that you’re old-fashioned and simple is easy, kind of like telling people how much you love God, but actually doing it is really, really hard.

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  • http://Carrieallentipton.com Carrie Allen Tipton

    Really interesting perspective! I appreciate the shout out.

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